David Zellner’s mystifying Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is less than the sum of its parts – a loving homage to the Coen Brother’s classic Fargo, it barely escapes that film’s shadow and has little idea of what to do with itself subsequently. It is a hard film to recommend to anyone but the most curious and committed cinephiles; and then, really only for comprehensiveness.
Reviewed by Drew Ninnis.
Director: David Zellner
Screenplay: David Zellner, Nathan Zellner
Runtime: 105 minutes.
Cast: Rinko Kikuchi, Nobuyuki Katsube, Shirley Venard, David Zellner.
Plot: Kumiko is unmarried in Tokyo, getting older and still in a office girl’s job serving an insensitive boss. Her life is dull, with only Bunzo the bunny to keep her company, but she treasures a secret – the location of a large amount of stolen money, revealed to her through careful investigation of a film called Fargo. Fed up with things at home, she impetuously departs for the US to find her fortune.
Festival Goers? Miss it.
Viewed as part of the Canberra International Film Festival.
Review: David Zellner’s mystifying Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter is less than the sum of its parts – a loving homage to the Coen Brother’s classic Fargo, it barely escapes that film’s shadow and has little idea of what to do with itself subsequently. It is a hollow vessel containing no insight, which is made all the more frustrating for Zellner’s brilliant eye for striking compositions and shots. The film is beautiful, and on an aesthetic level it is at its best when documenting Kumiko’s (Rinko Kikuchi) unfortunately dull life in Tokyo. But here again, it lives in the shadow of another master – Kurosawa – and the vital tradition of Japanese everyday-life films that the great director pioneered; alongside Ozu, Oshima, and that’s only naming those beginning with ‘O’. When the film does arrive in the States, for Kumiko’s great adventure, it paradoxically loses steam and has Kumiko acting in a Lost in Translation manner that is entirely inconsistent with her character to that point. What began as a competent but a little tired portrait of Japanese downtrodden-ness, ends as naïve interpolation of the idiot abroad. The touch of magical realism that closes out of this film rests the case that writer-director Zellner found a curious conceit and starting image, but never discovered a way for it to escape onto original territory and find itself as a film.
The narrative itself is straightforward enough, if requiring a little credulousness (and of course, the trademark ‘true story’ game is played out here too, just as in the film and television series of Fargo). Kumiko is a thirty-something office girl in Tokyo who seems aimless and is constantly nagged by an off-screen mother to either get married or come home, so her marriage can be arranged. This situation isn’t helped by Kumiko’s isolation or her boss, who has similarly limited views on the role of women in the workplace and stands in for a whole generation of Japanese society. Her only company is bunny Bunzo (played by himself), who seems generally nonplussed about the circumstances of his master. But Kumiko has a tape of Fargo, re-watching the pivotal scene of the buried ransom money again and again. Pushed too far by her boss, she absconds with the company credit card and flies to Minnesota to seek her fortune, believing that she can find the money where all else has failed. Of course there are a host of other quirks sandwiched in, such as Kumiko’s carefully embroidered maps and treasure journal, but they do little else than fill out the indie vibe of the film.
As always with low-key, narrowly focused protagonists of this sort the degree to which the viewer enjoys the film will turn on how much they want to read into Kumiko’s moods. Some details are surprisingly insightful and touchingly done – as when Kumiko contemplates spitting into her bosses’ tea. But I personally got less mileage when she transitions to the US, and her reasoning seems to become unhinged – for example, abandoning a bus with a flat tire for no reason other than those of moving the plot forward. The central conceit for the film is also a trap, and it becomes quickly apparent that Zellner has no idea of how he’s going to get himself out of it; with the ending of the film being entirely predictable in a Haruki Murakami sort of way, and also completely unsatisfying. The performances are excellent, particularly from an understated Rinko Kikuchi who carries the weight of the film on her shoulders; but a personal appearance from Zellner himself as a Deputy Sheriff is as ill advised as an M. Night Shyamalan cameo, and the performance goes largely unsold.
While there’s some wry humour to be found in parts, the elements of the film never coalesce into something more – making Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter more of an indie curiosity than a profound film. The latter of which is obviously what it is hoping to be, as a portrait of despair that still has a little time to stop and observe the absurd or amusing. Yet ultimately, the film is like the carefully framed shots Zellner loves so much – stuck in place, with characters and a narrative that attempts to move beyond itself but cannot. It is a hard film to recommend to anyone but the most curious and committed cinephiles; and then, really only for comprehensiveness.
Rating: Three stars.